Creative, low-cost childcare options to help parents survive what's left of summer

In the absence of a nanny, daycare or summer camp, here's what we — and other families — do to get by before school starts.
Image: Child using tablet
"Virtual summer camps” make use of a laptop or iPad to provide kids with educational activities that keep them entertained during the day. Tom Odulate / Getty Images/Cultura RF
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By Sarah Watts

“So, what's the plan for today?”

It's a question my husband and I ask each other often — every single morning, in fact, since our two kids, ages 6 and 8, started summer break. And every morning, we have to come up with a plan: How do we balance work, chores and childcare? Who will drive the kids to basketball practice, physical therapy, play-dates? Who will get dinner on the table?

It's a question that seems like it has an easy answer, until you factor in real life: My husband and I are both freelancers, working gigs that require odd hours and last-minute revisions, or gigs which sometimes don't fit neatly into the typical workweek (late nights and weekends spent working are not unusual in our house). With our schedules, daycare, camps, or summer programs are only partially helpful to begin with. When you factor in the specialized medical care that our youngest kid requires, it's clear that simply dropping the kids off with a teen babysitter or signing them up for sports programs at the local Y just isn't an option for us — at least not full-time. Depending on whoever needs to get work done on a particular day, one of us will be in charge of the children. On days when we both need to get stuff done, we scramble to figure out another arrangement.

Approximately 46 percent of kids ages 5 to 14 whose parents are self-employed don't have regular childcare outside of school.

As it turns out, we aren't the only ones with strange schedules and inconsistent childcare: According to information in a recent census report, approximately 46 percent of kids ages 5 to 14 whose parents are self-employed don't have regular childcare outside of school, either. (For non-self-employed parents, the rate is still high, at about 35 percent.)

Similar to us, these parents likely either work nontraditional hours that most day cares don't cover — or they simply can't afford the mounting cost of full-time childcare. In every state, daycare costs at least 30 percent of a minimum-wage worker's take-home pay, and in high-cost of living states like New York and Massachusetts, it's more like 80 percent.

Other childcare solutions, like summer camps, are also prohibitively expensive: According to the American Camping Association, the average weekly rate of a summer day camp program is $314 per week, while specialty camps can cost up to $1,000. But even summer camp doesn't reliably solve working parents' childcare problem: Parents who did send their kids to camp during the earlier summer months may now find them home during the day in August as camps come to a close.

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Between irregular hours and exorbitant costs, parents are having to get creative in order to work and find adequate childcare at the same time. In the absence of a nanny, daycare or summer camp, here's what we — and other families — do to get by.

Family help

Especially for parents who work part-time, using family members to watch the kids is by far the most ideal choice. Our family is fortunate to have my parents live nearby, one of whom is a licensed social worker with summers off (score!). Every so often she'll swing by the house and give us a few hours (or a full day!) of time to hunker down and work. A bonus? She's family, and we trust her to provide medical care for our youngest when necessary. It's not consistent care, but we consider ourselves lucky to have it, whenever it comes.

Shared sitters

Multiple times this summer, my husband and I have turned to each other and said literal prayers of thanks for the families who live next door — both of whom have kids the same age as ours. They're finally at the age where I can safely boot them out the door for a few hours and tell them to go play with their friends when they get bored, providing us with some working time and limited parental supervision (from the neighbors) to boot. And, of course, we return the favor when we can, swapping babysitting when they need to work or run errands. You can also tag team pick-ups and drop-offs with other parents to sports practice or other extracurricular activities to cut down on the time you spend in the car shuttling your kids around. It's a win-win situation that helps us in a pinch — and it's free. Working parents who don't have the luxury of helpful neighbors can consider investing in a paid sitter, sharing the time (and the cost) between families. Also, see if you can find a sitter who has a flat hourly rate, regardless of the number of kids in attendance (within reason of course), which can lower your cost even more.

Taking the kids to work

Until recently, sharing a space with two young children and expecting to get any work done was a near impossibility — either they were barging into my office while I was on an important phone call, or they were simply too young (and mischievous) to be unsupervised. But as they age and can take care of themselves semi-independently, we're able to save money on childcare simply by keeping them occupied at home or the office. Melissa Abraham, a friend and working parent based in Ferndale, Washington, uses the same approach. “[My kids] come with me to the office. I load up on snacks, electronics, and other activities, and they take over the conference room in my office,” she says. “This works for half the week, and then I work my schedule around my husband's so we can swap out.” This method works equally well at our house: Since our kids love crafts and coloring, oftentimes we'll pick up some cheap projects or materials from the thrift store and let them go to town while we're on the phone. We'll have a mess to clean up later, but it's worth the hours of silence it gives us in the meantime.

Virtual summer camps

In between shipping your kid off to summer camp and letting them stay home and watch television all day, there actually exists a happy medium. Parents are now signing their children up for “virtual summer camps,” which make use of a laptop or iPad and provide kids with activities that keep them entertained during the day. Experts agree that too much screen time can be detrimental to children's health, but in a pinch, virtual summer camps provide education, entertainment, and several peaceful hours in which parents can work (plus many of them encourage IRL activities and exploration). These virtual camps will also keep some money in your pocket. Many are free — including Make: Online, which offers weekly camps based on different themes and provides PDFs with daily activities — while others have a weekly fee, like Connected Camps, which offers 5-day sessions for $55-80, as well as one-off courses for round $15, where kids and an experienced instructor interact in real-time learning to design, play, and code using Minecraft.

Benign neglect

Like most kids who grew up in the 80s and 90s, my parents' idea of childcare was to send us outside and let us ride bikes all over the neighborhood, stopping back home only to eat lunch briefly and take off again. Today, however, letting kids out of your sight for the entire day — even school-aged kids — isn't something many parents feel comfortable doing. Instead, I practice what I call “benign neglect,” meaning I'm with them at all times but not fully present in whatever we're doing. On weekday mornings, I take them to a free matinee at the local movie theater, and while they're transfixed by the movie, I whip out my phone and answer e-mails. On trips to the pool, while they're spending hours in the huge sandbox, I'm on a beach chair nearby, pounding out assignments on my laptop. A friend of mine takes her kids to work, loads them up on snacks and games, and leaves them in the conference room while she does her job.

None of these arrangements are exactly ideal, and none of them are full-time, permanent solutions. But they offer some creative ways for parents to fill the dreaded gap between summer camp and the first day of school — and for those of us working freelance, a plan B to fall back on all year long.

More tips for a better summer

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